Six castles that shaped a nation
For his latest TV series, presenter Dan Jones has been on a mission to unearth the secrets contained within the fortified walls of some of Britain’s finest buildings
Nine hundred and 50 years after William the Conqueror invaded England in 1066, relics of the Norman invasion can still be found everywhere on the British landscape. The Normans were master castle-builders, and in scattering their fortified military bases all across the country they literally laid the foundations for what have become iconic monuments to Britain’s history and our national heritage. Making the second series of Secrets of Great British Castles, we had the chance to nose around some of the most spectacular buildings in the United Kingdom. Some, like Edinburgh Castle, are military garrisons. Others, like Leeds Castle in Kent, are closer in spirit to stately homes. Some are glorious ruins, while others – like Arundel Castle, seat of the dukes of Norfolk – are still lavish residences for noble families who trace their descent back to medieval times. We picked these six castles because all have played a role in British history far beyond the narrow confines of the Middle Ages. The stories we unearthed at the castles in this series sweep across 1,000 years of our national past, from Viking invaders to Tudor
When I was a child we lived in Edinburgh – and I can still remember trips on the bus along Princes Street with my mother, peering up at the incredible castle perched high on its volcanic crag above the city, at the top of the Royal Mile. It is one of the UK’s most popular tourist sites, and with good reason. It’s vast, it’s extremely well preserved and it puts on a pretty good show at the end of every summer when it hosts the Military Tattoo. It’s known as “the most besieged castle in Britain”, having been assaulted more than 20 times during its long history. And it’s home to the gigantic cannon called Mons Meg – so vast it could fire a cannonball with a similar diameter to a Tomahawk missile a couple of miles. Visitors can also see the Scottish crown jewels and look around royal apartments decorated with roses and thistles: a reminder of the tangled history of the Tudor and Stuart royal houses. James IV of Scotland and Mary Queen of Scots were two casualties of that family drama, and both have a personal history tied to Edinburgh Castle. With the possible exception of Windsor, this is the grandest and most storied royal castle in the British Isles (edinburghcastle.gov.uk).
Did you know: the “Black Dinner” took place at Edinburgh Castle in 1440. The teenage Earl of Douglas and his younger brother were dragged from a banquet and murdered. It directly inspired the infamous “Red Wedding” episode in
One of the most intriguing castles in Wales sits at the end of Cardiff ’s St Mary’s Street, a few minutes’ walk from the famous Principality (Millennium) Stadium, the home of Welsh rugby. Most of Wales’s really famous castles are around Snowdonia in the north, having been erected by Edward I during the English invasions of the late 13th century. But Cardiff castle’s history goes back much further, to Roman times. (You can still see a section of Roman fortification built into the outer wall of the castle.) Its golden age is much more recent, though. During the 19th century the castle was owned by the Marquesses of Bute – Scottish aristocrats who became vastly rich industrialists, exploiting the mineral wealth of South Wales and redeveloping Cardiff city and its docks. The castle’s glittering interiors are the work of the architect William Burges, who worked for the 3rd Marquess of Bute to create a glittering neo-gothic fantasy and truly lavish family home. In 1947 the castle was given to the people of Cardiff and it is now preserved for
The imposing Edinburgh Castle, left, towers over the centre of Scotland’s capital and has a long and bloody history